Thursday 29 September 2016

Provinces badly need to find a way out of Pro12

Published 11/03/2016 | 02:30

Munster team-mates Keith Earls and Simon Zebo are all smiles at Ireland training in Carton House, Maynooth yesterday. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Munster team-mates Keith Earls and Simon Zebo are all smiles at Ireland training in Carton House, Maynooth yesterday. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

There is a major problem brewing in Irish professional rugby that cannot resolve itself if the status quo remains intact. Last week's announcement by Aviva Premiership of a new deal to televise matches with NBC Sports Group in America, in addition to its lucrative agreement with BT, is the latest progressive step for a league that continues to outclass the Pro12 in terms of resources, talent and financial muscle.

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Where once the Irish provinces were the envy of English club sides, with European Cup titles spilling into the Emerald Isle on an almost annual basis, now the reverse is the case and Irish professional rugby is in danger of fizzling out into the abyss.

Financially, Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht cannot compete with the massive TV windfall swamping both the English and French markets.

The world's most talented players continue to set their sights on lucrative moves to the Top14 and the Premiership, while the Irish provinces are forced to go cap-in-hand to attract the middling and the mediocre.

Dress it up whatever way you like; as far as overseas player recruitment is concerned, Ireland is now the last refuge for the dying wasps and the also-rans.

It was Wasps this season that blew the lid open on Ireland's naivety. Perhaps the faint lingering smell of success from Leinster's last European triumph was masking the grim reality of life in the Celtic League, but after back-to-back annihilations at the hands of Dai Young's side, coupled with Munster's and Ulster's dismal failings in their respective European pools, any remaining whiff of past success has been replaced by a now familiar and all-consuming stench of mediocrity.

The Celtic League is a dead horse no matter what way you look at it. The competition is repeatedly whipped and cajoled by Sky Sports in an admirable attempt to make it into something it is not, but the declining attendance figures and sub-standard performances by the teams involved expose the grim reality of life in the Pro12.

The Irish provinces need to find a way out of the cesspool. The future of the professional game in this country depends on having a competitive, financially stable league to play in.

The truth is that nobody cares a jot for the Celtic league; not the players, not the television executives and certainly not the fans.

Connacht, the only Irish team worth paying in to watch this season, is being ripped apart by the very people that are supposed to protect it. Robbie Henshaw is moving east and leaving for a rival province, Aly Muldowney is off to France and Ireland's most prolific winger, Matt Healy, continues to be ignored by the Ireland coach, despite a gaping hole in Ireland's try count.

Pleasantries

The time for pleasantries is over. The Italian club experiment has utterly failed. Treviso and Zebre continue to prop up the table, as they have done almost every season since their inception.

The best players in Wales are playing their club rugby in France or England and one half of Scotland's professional set-up looks more like a South African third-string club side than a fair reflection of home grown Scottish talent.

So, what next? If the current mess is left to fester, revenues for the provinces will continue to decline and interest in the league will drop off to base-line level, if it isn't at that stage already.

A move away from Celtic league is the only viable solution. Whether that means banging the door down on our neighbours, to join up with the Aviva Premiership, or, much more radically, disbanding the provinces in favour of a new professional All-Ireland club league, time will tell.

But if nothing is done to arrest the slide, it won't be long before the professional game in this country dies off altogether.

And that would be a great shame.

Irish Independent

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